Subjective Security In Post-9/11 America

“…What it takes to make people feel secure varies a good deal… depending on the political and cultural context in which politics takes place. People’s subjective sense of security depends on two factors: the degree to which they prefer security as compared to other objectives, and the degree to which they see others as threatening” (L&L, 225).

This past Saturday, I was at the Dublin Pub in Dayton, watching an Irish band perform. After one tune, the frontman said: “We were playing in North Carolina two years ago, around the time of September 11, and this became a bit of a tradition.” The fiddle player proceeded to play the national anthem while everyone rose, put his or her hand to his or her heart, and looked up gravely to the American flag, draped from the ceiling alongside the Irish flag.

Suddenly, the vibe of the place changed. The energy of the happy Irish jig vanished and was replaced by a tense, melancholic air which I immediately began to study. It was part pride, part remembrance, and part fear. The fear seemed to be an underlying, perhaps unseen tone to the rest of the more obvious emotions. Two years later and everyone’s still scared—whether or not they’re consciously aware of it.

Rewind to the morning of September 11, 2001. I was at work downtown, a ten minute walk from home. Work was interrupted and we crowded around a small radio as events unfolded. Then we were dismissed for the day, and co-workers who lived outside of the city invited those of us who lived inside of the city to stay at their place, because—you never know.

Were we in a big city, a possible target area, a terrorist’s dream? Oh no. We were in Providence, Rhode Island. And still—fear, and the prospect of danger, clouded our minds. Even I, caught up in the drama, took off for my mom’s house, east of the city and out of harm’s way.

Since then, I’ve been watching with interest the collective sense of fear that has overwhelmed the country. Amid the anger, the nationalism, “patriotism-for-profit,” coming together for a common goal (defeating the evildoers!), and the thirst for revenge, the fear has always been a main—if not driving—component. September 11 opened our eyes to the fact that we are not as secure as we’d previously thought—that our objective security and our subjective security were not the same. And now, it seems to be reversed; according to L&L, our country “has been vulnerable to terrorist attack for years. Even as the response to September 11 reduces that vulnerability, the sense of threat remains far higher than it was before” (227).

And still, as a people we clamor for security like never before—at least, not in recent memory. The tides turned so much on that one fateful day, and we’re struggling to turn it back. We’d gotten used to our post-Cold War comfort and safety. Even if some of us knew it was all an illusion, September 11 brought our vulnerability and fear running to the surface.

So we invaded Afghanistan. Couldn’t find Osama. Oh, hey, don’t pay attention to that (our lovely administration said), look over here, to what this evil evil man in Iraq is doing! Saddam’s got WsMD! He aids terrorists! He played a role in September 11!

Oh no! Not that! (the American public screamed). We must get that punk before he kills us all!

So we “declare war” on Iraq. And since that’s been going oh so well, our anxiety and anticipation has been alleviated somewhat. And time, of course, is the biggest healer of all. Two years have passed. We’re not nearly in such a panic. New York is almost the same again (though it will never be quite the same again). Airline security—though still quite intense—is not nearly as fascist as it was before. Ask anyone if they’re still afraid—they’ll probably puff our their chest and said no, we nuked those bastards, didn’t we? We showed them who’s boss.

Because that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Like the cheesey 80’s sitcom—”Who’s the Boss?” Why, it’s us of course. So why should we be afraid?

But we still are. We thought we were invincible and we’re not. The adminstration panicked and did all sorts of nasty things “in our name” as a way to make us feel safe.

Ah—but was that their motive? Did they really make us feel safe again? Or did they use our fear against us?

How can you say that, Vee? one might ask. The government is here to protect us and by God, that’s just what they did.

Protect us from what, exactly? According to alternative media lore, the government knew well in advance the attacks of September 11 (and who knows what else). They didn’t seem to protect us then. Saddam’s been hiding WsMD since the Gulf War—and we so conveniently chose now to take action.

Is it possible, then, that the government’s orchestrating our fear, playing it like a fiddle plays the national anthem? That they’re using our newly discovered subjective vulnerability to control us? People will do almost anything to feel safe again if they feel threatened. Things like preemptive strikes on tiny, Third World states. (Could that have happened prior to September 11, so easily and with such public support?) Things like the Patriot Act. (How else would the government pass a bill which basically negates the Bill of Rights without having a “noble purpose”?) Things like the War on Terrorism (a good idea in embryo, perhaps, but something like three-forths of the planet disagrees with its methods, including most of the population of Great Britain (and still in continues (“in our name”))).

“…While actors’ security concerns usually have an objective component, they tend at least as much to be a state of mind.… How an actor views such risks depends on two other factors: what he considers an acceptable and achievable level of safety, and what he believes about others’ intentions toward him” (L&L, 237). Our perceptions of an “acceptable… level of safety” and “others’ intentions” seem to have gotten respectively higher and more menaching. But has our objective security changed or did its reality merely get jolted into us by the terrorist attacks and subsequent governmental and media actions and influences? Our perceived invincibility has been shattered, that we can say for sure. Will it ever be restored or, perhaps, will we learn to live without it? Will the undertone of fear I saw at the Dublin Pub that evening ever disappear?

Did September 11 make us batty with fear?


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